In a bloody finale, Algerian special forces stormed a natural gas complex in the Sahara desert on Saturday to end a standoff with Islamist extremists that left at least 23 hostages dead and killed all 32 militants involved, the Algerian government said.
With few details emerging from the remote site in eastern Algeria, it was unclear whether anyone was rescued in the final operation, but the number of hostages killed on Saturday – seven – was how many the militants had said that morning they still had. The government described the toll as provisional and some foreigners remain unaccounted for.
The US and British defense chiefs said the hostage crisis in Algeria ended and blamed the militants who seized the natural gas complex, and not Algeria’s government for its rescue operation.
At a joint news conference in London, British Defense Minister Philip Hammond called the loss of life appalling and unacceptable.
“It is the terrorists that bear the sole responsibility,” he told reporters.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said much remains “sketchy” about what happened at the remote Ain Amenas gas field.
“We know that lives have been lost,” he said.
Immediately after the assault, French President Francois Hollande gave his backing to Algeria’s tough tactics, saying they were “the most adapted response to the crisis.”
“There could be no negotiations” with terrorists, the French media quoted him as saying in the central French city of Tulle.
Hollande said the hostages were “shamefully murdered” by their captors, and he linked the event to France’s military operation against al-Qaeda-backed rebels in neighboring Mali. “If there was any need to justify our action against terrorism, we would have here, again, an additional argument,” he said.
In the final assault, the remaining band of militants killed the hostages before 11 of them were in turn cut down by the special forces, Algeria’s state news agency said. The military launched its Saturday assault to prevent a fire started by the extremists from engulfing the complex and blowing it up, the report added.
A total of 685 Algerian and 107 foreigner workers were freed over the course of the four-day standoff, the ministry statement said, adding that the group of militants that attacked the remote Saharan natural gas complex consisted of 32 men of various nationalities, including three Algerians and explosives experts.The military also said it confiscated heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, missiles and grenades attached to suicide belts.
The Ain Amenas plant is jointly run by BP, Norway’s Statoil and Algeria’s state-owned oil company. The governments of Norway and Britain said they received confirmation the siege was over.
The entire refinery was mined with explosives and set to blow up, the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach said in a statement, adding that the process of clearing the explosives had begun. The Algerian media reported that the militants had planned to blow up the complex.
The siege transfixed the world after radical Islamists linked to al-Qaeda stormed the complex, which contained hundreds of plant workers from all over the world.
Algeria’s response to the crisis was typical of the country’s history in confronting terrorists – military action over negotiation – and caused an international outcry from countries worried about their citizens.
Algerian military forces twice assaulted the areas where the hostages were being held with minimal apparent negotiation – first on Thursday and then on Saturday.
The al-Qaeda-linked militants attacked the plant Wednesday morning. They crept across the border from Libya, 60 miles (100 kilometers) away, and fell on a pair of buses taking foreign workers to the airport.
The buses’ military escort drove off the attackers in a blaze of gunfire that sent bullets zinging over the heads of crouching workers. A Briton and an Algerian – probably a security guard – were killed.
Frustrated, the militants turned to the vast gas complex, divided between the workers’ living quarters and the refinery itself, and seized hostages, the Algerian government said. The gas flowing to the site was cut off.